The last half-decade — since the 2006 midterm elections, really — has been a spectacularly bad spell for the Republican Party and for American conservatives in general.
So it’s a particularly painful reality that things have been even worse for that other great conservative institution that shapes so much of our cultural and political life, the Roman Catholic church.
Yes, the GOP faces a persistent leadership crisis, as well as a grave generational disconnect with young voters, women and people of color.
Yes, Republicans have planted their flag in opposition to things like tolerance for homosexuality, the wide availability of contraception and active environmentalism.
But such things are cyclical in a political party and can be remedied with relative ease.
The Church, meanwhile, faces a similar crisis with no obvious mechanisms for finding a solution.
In the last month, Pope Benedict resigned abruptly, speaking of “divisions” within his hierarchy and worrying aloud over the “sometimes disfigured face” of Roman Catholicism.
The Vatileaks scandal, following on the priest pedophilia debacle, has now given way to the resignation of Britain’s senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, in the wake of allegations that he made sexual advances toward other clergymen.
Then there’s the high-profile case of Monsignor Kevin Wallin, a clergyman in Connecticut, arrested for allegedly dealing crystal meth.
The problem for the Chuch is that it lacks any obvious means to claw its way out of this dead-end. A generation of highly conservative clerics in the post-Vatican 2 era have essentially closed off any dialogue with modernity.
Even as evidence mounts that homosexuality is just as common among priests as it is in the general population, the Church continues to dismiss it as an illegitimate perversion.
Even as the wider culture accepts women as equals to men, and as the ranks of ordained priests dwindle, the Church shrugs off any meaningful conversation about a marriage option for the priesthood, or the ordination of women.
Catholic leaders regularly dismiss this kind of essay as misguided, suggesting that without sharing the Roman Catholic faith no journalist can treat the Church’s crisis fairly or with any insight.
Indeed, many church leaders continue to argue that critics have it backwards. It is the wider culture, not the fiber and weave of Catholicism, that is in tatters.
“So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, in an interview with with the Chicago Tribune.
Maybe so. But when a man is about to drown, it makes no sense to blame the sea. He should look first to his own leaky boat.
It goes without saying that the Church remains a vital, deeply valuable institution in America, particularly in areas like the North Country.
But the next pope has a narrowing window of time to answer truly existential questions about the structure, the message and the spiritual values of Roman Catholicism.
There are signs that top leaders still don’t understand the peril of this crisis or the severity of the damage to their credibility.
Consider this. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the semi-retired former top cleric from Los Angeles, California, has been stripped of most of his diocesan duties because of his documented efforts to shield pedophile priests.
One priest under Mahony’s supervision fled to Mexico to escape police prosecution after he was warned that he was in “a good deal of danger” by a top Mahony aide.
(Can you imagine if Mahony’s staff had helped an accused bank robber or a drug dealer to escape police? But no. In this case, it was only an alleged molester.)
Yet Mahony will be one of the cardinals allowed to participate in the sacred selection process in Rome that will produce the next pontiff.
(Before departing for Rome, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was also deposed recently by lawyers bringing lawsuits over hundreds of sexual abuse cases in Milwaukee, where Dolan was archbishop.)
And there’s the challenge in a nutshell. How do you clean house when the guys who trashed the house continue to claim a mandate from God?